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Nuclear disarmament: the global challenge

Published in Nuclear Asia, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, 6 December 2017

The world is closer now to a catastrophic nuclear weapons exchange and not just because of developments in North Korea than it has been at any time since the height of the Cold War. That is an alarming view, but almost now a mainstream one. It is the position taken by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, when this year it moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 2½ minutes to midnight, the closest they have been since the mid-1950s. And it is also the view of the so-called four horsemen George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bill Perry those hard headed Cold War realists, and previous staunch defenders of nuclear weapons, in their seminal series of Wall Street Journal articles of recent years. They argue persuasively that whatever deterrent utility nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War, in the present international environment, the risks of any state retaining them far outweigh any possible security rewards.

There are three main reasons for this heightened concern, and why policymakers should be much less willing to rely on nuclear weapons than most still are. First, so long as there are very large numbers of nuclear weapons in existence (presently some 15,400 worldwide), and particularly so long as large numbers of these are actively operationally deployed (presently some 4,000) with a very large number on high alert launch status (presently some 2,000), then even if no nuclear-armed state ever takes a deliberate decision to initiate a first-strike nuclear attack and I am inclined to believe that none ever will–there is a huge risk of a nuclear exchange being initiated by human or system error, accident or miscalculation.

Given what we now know about the Cold War United States-Soviet Union near-miss cases; given what we know about the rather more uncertain command and control, and mutual reassurance systems of the more recently nuclear armed states; and given also what we now know, and can guess, about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, that we have survived over seven decades without a nuclear weapons catastrophe is not a matter of inherent system stability or great statesmanship just sheer dumb luck. And there is no reason why that luck should continue indefinitely.

Second, having more nuclear-armed states dramatically compounds the danger. As bad as the risks were during most of the Cold War years, when there were just two opposing major nuclear powers, they have become much worse since the proliferation developments that produced India, Pakistan and Israel as new nuclear armed states, and more recently North Korea. These countries already lie in areas of great regional volatility, with a history of violent conflict and less sophisticated command and control systems. And, of course, these risks would be compounded even more dramatically were there to be further breakouts, particularly by others in the Middle East should Iran be perceived to be not fully back in its box, or in Northeast Asia in response either to North Korea or to a dramatic increase in Chinese overall military capability (even though Beijing is continuing to show comparative moderation in the development of its nuclear weapons arsenal).

Holding the line on the Iran deal is by no means a certainty, given the continuing desire of US President Donald Trump and others around him to tear it up–so far curbed only by such adults as remain in the room on grounds that have nothing to do with whether Tehran is in fact observing, as it has been, its side of the bargain. North Korea remains a much tougher case, and gets ever more so as its weapon and delivery system capability develop ever more rapidly. We all know the policy options are extremely limited: sanctions seem likely to continue to be unproductive; China is not willing to push the regime to its breaking point, even if it could, and threatening it with a trade war if it doesn’t, is as ignorant as it is reckless about the likely consequences; and pre-emptive military action is attractive only to the certifiably deluded. The only viable approach is one that combines containment, deterrence and keeping the door wide open for negotiations, without preconditions and through any mechanism, bilateral or multilateral, which seems likely to be productive. Hope should not be abandoned that at least a freeze could be negotiated, if the North Korean regime could be given sufficient confidence that its survival is not at risk: that is what Pyongyang wants, not a war which can only be suicidal.

The third reason for heightened concern about the present global nuclear weapons environment is that, at the very time that the world should be redoubling its efforts to move towards complete nuclear disarmament, and much stronger non-proliferation regimes, we are in fact moving in the opposite direction. As to disarmament, the US and Russia are each dramatically modernising their arsenals, and under current leaders showing no inclination whatsoever to engage in any serious new arms control. Everywhere in Asia, nuclear weapons numbers are increasing, not diminishing. And despite all the recent efforts of global civil society and the humanitarian impact movement with two thirds of United Nations members supporting the newly negotiated nuclear weapons ban treaty all the present nuclear armed states and nearly all their partners and allies are vigorously opposing event tentative first steps toward disarmament.

As to non-proliferation, the whole world would manifestly benefit from a strengthening of the current legal regime, including through tougher safeguards (in particular universal embrace of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Additional Protocol), meaningful penalties for Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) non-compliance, a ban on fissile material production for weapons purposes, securing nuclear weapon free zone protocol ratifications, bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) finally into force and strengthening non-treaty mechanisms like the Proliferation Security Initiative. But it has been remarkably difficult, not least through the NPT review process, to get delivery on any of these measures. Although the nuclear-weapon states continue to be in denial about this, the basic problem is the perceived lack of serious commitment by these states to the Article VI disarmament commitments of the NPT. All the world hates a hypocrite. And so long as the nuclear weapon states and those which, like Australia, shelter under their umbrella–continue to insist that their security concerns justify retaining a nuclear option, but other countries’ concerns do not, that is exactly how the nuclear weapons states will continue to be regarded.

Is the recently negotiated Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty (NWPT) capable of being a game-changer? The treaty which will be legally binding on the parties to it, and enter into force once 50 states ratify it, an easily realisable target is not modest in its aspirations. It seeks to ban outright the development, possession, use, threat of use, stationing or transfer of all nuclear weapons; and weapons states joining the treaty commit to their weapons’ immediate removal from operational use and time-bound destruction.

The NWPT was designed to make clear that the majority of UN member states regard nuclear weapons as morally unconscionable and want to see them completely prohibited. Its aspirations are manifestly normative rather than immediately practical. It was drafted and negotiated much more speedily than has been normal for arms control treaties of any significance, without much attention to it being a practically implementable blueprint for change, and contains several obvious weaknesses.

First in its safeguards provisions: weapons states are not likely to be encouraged to relinquish their weapons when by doing so they will be held to a higher standard than non-weapons states (including potential proliferators like Egypt and Saudi Arabia who have not committed to the strongest form of safeguards, the IAEA Additional Protocol). Second, it is very light on the crucial question of verification that’s for a competent international authority to be designated in due course by the states that are party to it. Third, it is silent on the even more crucial question of enforcement, understandably enough, because the issue of how to respond to a rogue state breakout in a nuclear weaponsfree world is one to which no one has even a conceptually credible solution. And fourth, the provision that nuclear-armed states joining the treaty submit to a time bound program for the complete and irreversible elimination of their stockpiles is not likely to be very attractive to those states that are nervous about going to zero while others still have nuclear weapons.

The reality is none of the existing nuclear armed states, or their allies or treaty partners, endorsed the draft NWPT or are likely to join it any time soon or indeed for the indefinitely foreseeable future. But that is not to say that its negotiation has been a waste of time, or in any way counterproductive. The idea of this ban treaty and the humanitarian consequences movement from which it was born–has already generated real normative momentum, and will continue to do so. Global stigmatisation, delegitimisation and the will to prohibit nuclear weapons may not be sufficient conditions for their elimination, but they are necessary conditions. And whether the nuclear armed states like it or not and whether others of us like Australia who think of ourselves as sheltering under their nuclear umbrella like it or not–that is the mood that is out there in the rest of the world.

That said, those passionately in favour of nuclear disarmament need to do something more than just campaign to raise the profile of the NWPT and secure the maximum number of adherents. That approach may be working well with the Ottawa and Oslo treaties, on land mines and cluster bombs, where–despite several significant states holding out– the normative consensus continues to consolidate and grow to the extent it is possible to imagine achieving in the not too distant future a world in which these weapons are simply no longer used. But the stakes are much higher with nuclear weapons, given their existential destructive power, the psychological commitment to their retention by so many nuclear armed states and the fear that each has that even if they go collectively to zero they will be vulnerable to rogue state breakout in the absence of effective verification and enforcement machinery. It is just not credible to think that the present treaty, by itself, can get us to a nuclear weapon free world.

My own preference would have been for a treaty, or treaty making process, that while being as clear as this one is about the ultimate destination acknowledges the reality that nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on a step-by-step basis, and builds into its present all or nothing fabric a series of way stations. The nuclear armed states and those, like Australia, who travel with them are right to say that only a step by step approach can ever produce results. But we lose all credibility when we extol that approach, but then do absolutely nothing to indicate we are even contemplating taking any steps at all which is the current reality.

There is a way forward on all of this, and it was mapped with some precision by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which I co-chaired eight years ago with former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. We argued that progress could only be made by recognising two distinct stages, first minimisation then elimination, with some inevitable discontinuity between them, because of the reality, when it comes to moving from low numbers to zero, that there are not only psychological barriers and geopolitical barriers in the world as we can envisage it for the foreseeable future, but there are serious technical barriers of verification and enforcement as well.

So, we urged that initial efforts be focused not on elimination but on what was described as the minimisation agenda reducing overall numbers to around 2,000 (compared with the 15,000+ now in existence), getting universal buy in to ‘No First Use’, and giving that credibility by taking weapons off high alert and drastically reducing the number of those actively deployed. All of this, we argued, was achievable over a 15 year or so time frame with the right political will. We did not resist the idea of commencing negotiation now on a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention that would provide for the outright banning of all nuclear weapons, but given the great many technical, as well as political, obstacles involved in moving from low numbers to zero, we thought it would take many years to negotiate a disarmament regime that it would be possible for the nuclear-armed states to buy into and that it would be more productive to focus efforts on achieving the minimisation targets rather than producing the kind of campaign treaty that the NWPT now represents.

While achieving our minimisation objective by around 2025 seemed possible in the international environment of 2009, it unhappily looks much more elusive now. But I still believe that going back to the hard grind of step by step arms control negotiations, both bilateral and multilateral, is the only path to a safer and saner nuclear world. A world with very low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status and with every nuclear armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use nuclear weapons. It would still be very far from being perfect, and no one should even think of settling for that as the endpoint. But a world that could achieve these objectives would be a very much safer one than we live in now.

This journal article was originally published in Nuclear Asia, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, 6 December 2017. To access the full publication, go to the following link.